Cruising California's Owens Valley by Motorcycle

Drop into North America's deepest valley.

For most Californians, U.S. Highway 395 is just the road that runs from Southern California to Reno, the Mammoth Lakes ski area or their favorite trout fishing hole. But there is much more to explore as you ride up North America's deepest valley, where the craggy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains jut to over 14,000 feet to the west and the White mountains go almost that high to the east of the 4000-foot valley floor.

To get here from L.A. for our Big Twins Comarison in our February 1997 issue, we took Highways 14 and 395, through Palmdale and Lancaster, past Edwards Air Force Base, where we first began to see the military aircraft that would tear through the skies occasionally for the rest of our trip, through Mojave, past Red Rock Canyon and past Honda's Mojave test track near California City.

If you come from Northern California, the usual approach is through Yosemite or over Monitor Pass, both thrilling rides. Or you can drop down from the Reno or Lake Tahoe areas.

Coming from the south, after you cross from Kern County to Inyo county heading north, about two hours out of Los Angeles, you officially enter the Owens Valley when you pass the red cinder cone to the east of the highway. There is plenty of evidence of volcanic activity here, including various hot springs (two of the most popular, just south of Bishop or east of Mammoth Lakes Airport are great for a soak after a long day's ride), additional cinder cones, not-that-old lava beds astride the highway and the oscillating property values around Mammoth Lakes, where geologists monitor a rising level of volcanic activity.

The Valley was cut by the Owens River, which flows east of the highway for the entire trip, although some of its water flows through the aqueduct that occasionally crosses the highway. Arid now, the Valley was once much wetter before the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) claimed (some would say, stole) the rights to much of its water early in in the 20th century. The diversion of water to keep Los Angeles lawns green left Owens Lake, just south of Lone Pine, virtually dry. In the 1920s, steamboats were needed to cross it. Now it is so dry that the EPA cites it as a leading source of pollution because strong winds blowing down the Valley whip away the alkali dust from its surface, causing health threats for people hundreds of miles down wind. The EPA was so concerned about this that it actually suggested paving over the huge dry lake bed. No one suggested the seemingly obvious solution of filling the lake again (folks in LA might not be able wash their cars every day!), but they are now testing the idea of using sprinklers to hold the dust down.

The first real town you pass through is Lone Pine, which is set against the Alabama Hills, the site of hundreds of western movies and TV shows. A film festival here every fall celebrates the cowboy-movie era with screenings and stars. A right turn here will send you towards Death Valley and the Panamint mountains. Turning left will point you toward Whitney Portal and the trail to Mount Whitney, the highest peak (14,494 feet) in the lower 48 states. Allow most a day if you plan to make the hike to the top. If you'd rather climb on your bike, the Horseshoe Canyon road just south of the Whitney Portal road offers a panoramic zigzag charge up to about 11,000 feet and the doorstep of the Golden Trout Wilderness. The visitor center just south of town can guide you.

Continuing north on 395, most left turns take you up to the slopes of the eastern Sierra, usually along well-stocked trout streams and often to lakes. At the tops of many of these roads, you will find trailheads and pack stables, where you can climb on a horse or mule to get way back into the mountains, for just a few hours or a few weeks. Near Independence, the Mount Whitney Fish hatchery, operating for a century, is a great place to picnic while watching huge trout cruising through a placid pool.

At Big Pine, a left turn will take you the jumping-off point for the hike to the Palisade Glacier, the largest glacier in the Sierras. Allow most of a day for the steep hike to the Glacier from the trailhead up Big Pine Creek above the valley floor. The 10-room Glacier Lodge (760/938-2837) makes a good overnight stop, though you could stay in nearby Independence or Bishop as well. It's a good idea to make reservations early.

A right turn from Highway 395 on route 168 in Big Pine takes you to the Bristlecone Pines, which, at 4000 years old and counting, predate the redwoods by a millennium and are the oldest living things in the world. The visitor center is accessible by a winding, paved road that makes the visit worthwhile all by itself, and well graded dirt roads make it easy to reach the rest of the preserve, which is situated at 10,000 feet and up. Those satellite dishes you pass on the way are actually a radio telescope array, searching for sounds of life from the stars.

Bishop, 20 minutes north of Big Pine, is the largest town in the Owens Valley. (It also has the only franchised motorcycle dealer in the Owens Valley, Golden State Cycle toward the north end of town.) A 20-mile ride west on route 168 leads you up Bishop Creek canyon, offering four alpine lakes and miles of creeks (also raided every few miles by the DWP) for fishing, a choice of pack stables, many trails into the Sierras, half a dozen campgrounds and several lodges, including the Cardinal Village (760/873-4789), a converted turn-of-the-century gold mining facility. The Laws Railroad Museum just north of Bishop on Highway 6, is a restoration of the narrow-gauge railroad that once served the area.

Continuing north, Highway 395 climbs in earnest leaving Bishop (4100 feet) as you head toward the Mammoth area. Along the way it touches the shores of Lake Crowley, created by the DWP to siphon more water to LA. This has been the source of some of the largest trout ever hooked in California and becomes quite a spectacle on the opening day of fishing season at the end of April. A left turn before reaching Mammoth will take you to jewel-like Convict Lake (named for a shoot-out between escaped convicts and a posse during the 19th century). Mammoth Lakes is one of California's favored ski areas during the winter and the site of mountain bike and motocross races during the summer. In the summer, you can fish, boat, horseback ride, or take an easy hike to Rainbow Falls and the Devils Postpile, a unique geologic formation. If the 8000-feet-and-climbing altitude dissuades you from hiking, the ride along the chain of lakes is scenic and offers a waterfall of its own.

The next major attraction up 395 is the June Lake Loop, another ski area offering a scenic lakeside drive amid towering peaks. Even more than on other mountain roads, it pays to be alert for deer here. If you follow the scenic loop past the chain of lakes, it brings you back to 395 eventually.

The next wide spot in the road is Lee Vining, the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park. Lee Vining overlooks Mono Lake, an almost-dead lake that was the focus of the biggest battle waged against the DWP in recent years, as environmental activists sought successfully to prevent the agency from sucking up too much water from the Mono lake basin and exposing the seabird rookery on an island in the lake to forays from coyotes. The lake is distinguished by its tufa formations, towers of calcium carbonate rock created by the interaction of fresh-water spring in the lake bed with the alkaline water of the lake itself . A visitor center alongside 395 provides information about the unique basin.

Climbing north from Mono Lake just past the peak of 8100-foot Conway Summit, turn left to Virginia Lakes, a favorite of fishermen. The ride along the ridge, where we watched a lunar eclipse, provides a spectacular vista of the Mono Lake basin in one direction and the Bridgeport Lake basin in the other. A little ways down the hill on 395, a right turn will take you to Bodie, a state-maintained ghost town. The State Historic Park preserves 170 buildings of what was reputed to be one of the wildest towns of the gold-rush era. As many as 10,000 people lived here during its boom period. The final three miles of the road is unpaved, and though it isn't too difficult to ride, it will leave your bike looking like a powder puff.

We regard Bridgeport as the northern end of the Owens Valley tour. North of here the dramatic geology softens and you return to more familiar vistas. Bridgeport was once believed to be in Nevada until more accurate surveying revealed that residents did have to pay income taxes. The town, which hosts a large motorcycle rally every summer, has plenty of buildings, including the courthouse, that confirm its age and heritage.

Though Bridgeport is less than 400 miles from LA, you should plan on about five days, maybe more, to explore the Owens Valley, and even that will just scratch the surface. Come prepared for anything in terms of weather. In the summer, temperatures often reach the 90s and even top 100 down in the valley, but a ride into the mountains can take 30 degrees off the temperature. Temperatures for our late-September ride were forecast to range from the mid-20s (at night in the mountains) to 90 (mid afternoon on the Valley floor), and they probably just about reached those extremes in the areas we rode through. You can ride as far as Bishop during most of winter, but the chance of encountering snow increases quickly north of that and at higher altitudes. During the summer, you may encounter localized thunderstorms in the mountains, though widespread rain is rare.

Art Friedman
Friedman spends many weekends riding on- and off-road in the Owens Valley. He can be emailed at Art.Friedman@primedia.com or at ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com..

RESOURCES

Golden State Cycle
1220 Main Street
Bishop, CA 93514
(760) 872-1570, (888) 947-1570
GoldenStateCycle.com

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Riding the June Lake Loop. Photography by Kevin Wing (www.KevinWingPhotography.com)
Bishop Creek Canyon is a favorite destination for fall colors, which were just beginning to appear during our September ride.
Look familiar? The Alabama Hills, just outside of Lone Pine, were the setting for countless western movies.
This beautiful, almost deserted road winds to 11,000 feet just west of Lone Pine and south of the road that takes you to the Mt. Whitney trailhead.